Salt Production and Trade in Ancient Mesoamerica

  • Eduardo Williams


Common salt, or sodium chloride, has always been a strategic resource of primary importance. In Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica salt was used mainly for human consumption, as the native diet (consisting mainly of plants such as maize, beans, chili peppers, squash, and so on) had little chloride and sodium (Williams 2003). Chloride is essential for digestion and respiration, and without sodium our organism would be unable to transport nutrients or oxygen, or transmit nerve impulses. Throughout the world, once human beings began cultivating crops, they began looking for salt to add to their diet (Kurlansky 2002:6–9).

In the preindustrial world sodium chloride had several important uses apart from its role in the diet, particularly as a preservative of animal flesh, as a mordant for fixing textile dyes, as a medium of exchange, and as a principal component in the preparation of soaps and cleansing agents (Parsons 1994:280).

The flow of strategic and scarce goods (including salt) from the subject provinces to the imperial capitals in Mesoamerica (such as Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital) was assured by the rulers through a geopolitical strategy that kept conquered communities under the obligation to pay tribute, and kept the lines of communication with the state core areas open at all times. The procurement and distribution of salt and other strategic resources (e.g., obsidian, copper, turquoise, jade, and so on) as well as the military control of the source areas and the extraction of tribute and trade were critical aspects for the economic and social life of most Mesoamerican polities. Imperial expansion toward resource-rich regions is ultimately explained by the desire to obtain precious commodities and vital resources, among which salt was always of paramount importance.


Sixteenth Century Strategic Resource Salt Production Transmit Nerve Impulse Postclassic Period 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This article is based on the book La sal de la tierra, which was awarded the Alfonso Caso Prize by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History in 2005. The author would like to thank several colleagues who gave help and advice: Anthony Andrews, Daniel Healan, Jeffrey Parsons, Helen Pollard, Juan Carlos Reyes, Michael E. Smith, and Philip Weigand.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eduardo Williams
    • 1
  1. 1.El Colegio de MichoacánZamoraMéxico

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